For Christmas this year, I gave Molly a stack of age-appropriate books that we’re aiming to read together in 2016. Some out and out classics, some in the ‘good to know’ category.
The first cab off the rank, chosen for its brevity more than anything else, was the English translation of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
I didn’t resist taking on the persona of the Little Prince as we read together either—it’s hard not to. The naive beauty of the character de Saint-Exupéry inspired is an irresistible invitation to both intergalactic transportation and mimicry.
What I did resist was asking Molly too much about what she thought was going on as we read together. I saved that for when we were done.
If you haven’t read The Little Prince (and, until only five or so years ago, I hadn’t) then you should. It won’t take you long. As de Saint-Exupéry narrates from the perspective of an air pilot who has crashed in the Sahara, he is quick to point out that while he is willing to provide some specifics of ‘the asteroid known as B-612’, it is only provided on account of the grown-ups. Those pesky grown-ups love figures.
“Once upon a time, there was a little prince who lived on a planet that was barely larger than he, and who needed a friend.”
That’s how Antoine de Saint-Exupéry would have liked to begin his story of the Little Prince. To those who understand life, he says, that sort of a beginning would have rung far truer than any other.
Us adults are consumed by trivialities and ‘never ask questions about essential matters’. Rather than asking ‘What does his voice sound like? What games does he prefer? Does he collect butterflies?’, they ask you: ‘How old is he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father earn?’.
From the young voice of the Little Prince, de Saint-Exupéry can slip under the guard of the adult and endear his character to young children all at once.
Almost systematically, the Little Prince tours nearby planets, continually confused by the strange grown-ups he meets along the way.
Grown-ups like the sad drunk who continues to get drunk so he can forget that he is a drunk. Or the power-hungry king who rules nothing but for whom all men are subjects. Or the conceited man for whom all men are admirers. Or the businessman worn out by an insatiable desire to amass wealth that brings him no pleasure. All of them feel like an extrapolation of Solomon’s ‘chasing of the wind’ in Ecclesiastes 1.
And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. Ecclesiastes 1:17
Aside from The Little Prince’s unwillingness to play the games that those curious adults are consumed by, it’s a line that would be well at home in this book.
For the sweet rebuke and reminder of what is important for the Little Prince, arguably the greatest wisdom comes from the fox.
Of all the memorable lines in the book, the fox seems to claim a fair share. The Little Prince wants the fox as a friend, but the fox is quick to point out that that can’t happen unless the fox is tamed. Taming is a dangerous thing; the fox points out.
‘To you, I am just a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique. And I shall be unique to you.’
More than that uniqueness, the taming of something brings sunshine, dependence, and awareness. Taming creates triggers for the memory as well, the fox says.
“One can only understand the things one tames” and that takes time that so many men do not have.
They buy ready-made things in the shops. But since there are no shops where you can buy friends, men no longer have any friends. If you want a friend, tame me!
Taming takes time and requires patience. Rites are created in the process of taming. And taming is dangerous, for your heart is changed. In some ways, taming tethers your heart in sweet and scary ways.
I think you could substitute some words for ‘taming’. ‘Friends’, ‘community’, and ‘relationships’ may be among them. Then again, so might ‘commitment’, ‘passion’ and ‘joy’.
Once we were done, I asked Molly what she thought the book was about. Her reply: friendship and love. A fair answer for an eight year old.
We talked about what an allegory was and the layers of meaning (and meaninglessness) that were also a part of The Little Prince. She said that she really understood that a flower and a sheep that you cared for seemed a more worthwhile use of your time than to continue to count and recount numbers for no good thing. Eight-year-olds get that sort of stuff.
I like this project we’ve got going and hope it survives the first month of the year. I’ve asked her to select the next book – got a feeling it will be the second skinniest one.